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May 30, 2018 11 min read

The Tax Season Survival Guide for Professionals

Everything a tax professional needs to know about thriving and surviving during tax season.

The Tax Season Survival Guide for Professionals

Let’s get right to it. One of the keys to successful tax preparation has nothing to do with filling out forms or itemizing deductions. You also have to be able to work efficiently under pressure while weathering the yearly force of nature we call Tax Season. That’s no simple task.

This guide covers how to survive tax season and get work done efficiently no matter how crazy tax season gets. Let’s dive in.

Prepare for Tax Season

Orchestrating a successful tax season begins long before the IRS starts accepting returns at the end of January. There are dozens of tasks that need doing in order to prepare for tax season, from stocking the materials closet to hiring any extra help you might need. Here are a few less obvious things you might add to your pre-tax season preparation list.

Audit your process

Chances are you’ve probably prepared enough tax returns that you have the process down to a science. You know what you need to do to get the job done, but that doesn’t mean everyone on your team does. It also doesn’t mean that your working pace isn’t getting slowed down by tedious tasks such as delegating work, holding meetings, and checking the statuses of different projects.

Do you want to avoid all that and save yourself a bunch of time next tax season? It’s time for you to do a process audit. Once you optimize your processes for completing casework, you’ll be able to get more work done, and projects will run more smoothly. Plus, it will take the guesswork out of your daily workload.

Offer tax planning early 

Your clients will really benefit from having a planning session about lowering their taxable income by implementing year-end strategies. For example, some business owners don’t know that they can choose to delay billing for certain work or services done late in the year. That way, they receive the payment in the following year, thus lowering their tax liability for that current year. Without your help, your clients are likely unaware of these and many other actions they can take toward the end of the year.

Tax planning is a year-round activity where you can work with your clients to make plans and get organized. By helping your clients plan early, you’ll give them the tools they need to be far more prepared when tax season rolls around.

Help clients understand which tax laws apply to them

Tax laws are constantly changing, but many people don’t actually know how those changes will affect them. You know that the vast majority of the new rules won’t drastically change most people’s taxes, but your clients may not. A short email with a simple explanation and timeline of any new changes will help your clients enter this tax season with less anxiety.

Make it easy for clients to share information 

Preparing a return can require stacks of paperwork—stacks that show up on your desk too often as a shoebox stuffed with unorganized papers. Simplify the whole process by making good use of a client portal. Your clients will love that they don’t have to make multiple trips to your office because they forgot an envelope full of random receipts, and you’ll love that you can finally stop dealing with the efficiency a client portal brings.

Help clients decide if they need to itemize

Helping clients decide if they need to itemize before tax season will save you and many of your clients a whole bunch of time. Even if you don’t do a full tax planning for a client, you should at least help them determine in advance whether they’ll need to itemize or not. If your clients know ahead of time that they don’t need to itemize this tax season, then they don’t have to spend hours stressing about where they misplaced that one receipt they’re sure they still have somewhere. And you don’t have to wait on that mystery receipt.

Of course, the opposite is also true. If a client is better off itemizing and they don’t realize it yet, you can save both you and them a boatload of stress by giving them the time they need to prepare.

Encourage clients to file early 

Filing early in the season does three important things:

  • It reduces the stress that accompanies fast-approaching deadlines. Less stress for your client means less stress for you.
  • It makes it far less likely that a fraudulent return will be (successfully) filed in your client’s name. You can’t guarantee that a fraudulent return won’t be filed, but you can beat the fraudsters to the punch.
  • Filing early means your clients are less likely to be poached by H&R Block or TurboTax. The onslaught of DIY tax ads can be relentless during tax season. Make the effort to get your clients in the door before they decide they’re better off going it alone.

Survive Tax Season

Prepare as you might for tax season, it’s still going to hit hard. Remember, even at the height of the busy season, your mental and physical well-being is important. The piles of work start growing immediately and you just don’t seem to have enough hours in the day to get everything done (despite working crazy long hours).

Here are three suggestions (outside of preparing for tax season well in advance) for how to survive tax season.

Get some exercise

Fitting exercise into a busy schedule is difficult year-round, let alone during tax season, but it’s a critical part of managing stress and promoting personal wellness. The American Heart Association recommends adults get 150 minutes of exercise per week to stay healthy. That’s moderate exercise, not vigorous, meaning you don’t have to run 10 miles every day. You just need to step away from your desk and move around a bit.

If you’re too strapped for time to do a 30-minute spurt of exercise, break it into 10-15 minute increments throughout the day. You can go on a short walk before work, at lunch, and after work. Recruit a colleague to join if you want to make your walk more social. Plus, an exercise buddy will help hold you accountable. You’ll be more likely to get up and go for that walk if someone is waiting on you.

Enjoy some fresh air

Try taking your walks outside if you want to incorporate two stress-reducing techniques into one. Looking at screens all day without break isn’t beneficial to anyone’s eyes or motivation. If you don’t want to take a walk, sit on a bench or some grass and just enjoy a short break before you have to head back into your fluorescent-lit office.

Whether you choose to walk or not, the fresh air will do you a world of good. In fact, getting just 30 minutes of sunshine can provide you with almost all of your daily Vitamin D supply, which helps reduce the risk of many diseases. Plus, the sunshine will make you happier. Research has found that individuals who get more sun show fewer symptoms of depression.

Relax a little

Along with getting exercise and fresh air, make the time for an activity or two that is for the sole purpose of relaxation. Some tax practices offer massages or yoga. If your practice doesn’t, find something else you can do to more fully enjoy your week. This could be as simple as taking the time to stretch between appointments, ordering in lunch from a restaurant you like, or leaving an hour early one day to make some time for family or friends. You can also implement these activities into shorter breaks if needed.

You won’t have a lot of time to relax during tax season, but the time you do take for yourself will significantly help reduce your stress overall.

Recover from Tax Season

As you well know, the work doesn’t simply stop the day after the tax deadline. Deadlines come and go, but there’s always more work to be done. So much, in fact, that it’s sometimes easy to overlook even important things that need doing after tax season. So we’ve compiled a list of a few things you should remember to do once tax season is over.

Help your employees recover

If you own or manage a tax practice, it’s just as important to help your employees recover as it is to recover yourself. You don’t necessarily need to do anything elaborate, but there are small things you can do that will go a long way to helping your employees feel like the last few months of hard work and late nights were worth it. Consider allowing some extra time off, finding a way to genuinely recognize your employees’ hard work, and even giving your employees thoughtful gifts to show them your appreciation.

Take a vacation

If it’s possible, you really should take some time off work soon after tax season. Taking a vacation produces all kinds of benefits you probably need after a few months of tax-season stress. Some of the benefits will be no surprise—vacations help improve relationships, ease stress, and increase short-term happiness. Other benefits may come as more of a surprise—vacations decrease the risk of heart disease, enhance your ability to think creatively and make you more productive when you return to work.

Ramp up your marketing efforts 

Tax season is the busiest part of the year for most tax professionals, so it’s understandable if you let your marketing efforts grow a little stale the last few weeks of tax season. However, marketing isn’t the kind of thing that works well if you leave it unattended for very long. Now that tax season is over, it’s time to dust off your marketing plan and get back to work on it.

Not sure how to revitalize your marketing efforts? That’s okay.
We created a marketing ebook designed specifically for tax professionals.  

Work efficiently during tax season

Find your work rhythm

Another big part of surviving tax season is working efficiently. That looks different for everyone, but two ways you can increase your efficiency are by finding a work rhythm and minimizing meetings. Check out these ideas for getting started. 

Use a starting ritual 

A ritual is essentially nothing more than a set of actions or words a person uses to put them in a certain frame of mind. You see this often in sports. This is exactly what baseball players are doing when they tap their own pattern on the plate and dig in their feet just so when they come up to bat. The same with basketball players bouncing the ball in a specific pattern before taking a free-throw shot. The repeated behavior triggers a specific mental state that makes them more likely to be successful in that moment.

You can use the same technique to consistently find your groove. Your ritual can be anything: making a cup of coffee just the way you like it; arranging your desk until it’s perfect; putting headphones on and playing the exact same starting song. As long as you’re consistent, you can do whatever works for you.

Control your environment (where you can)

This can be hard when you work in a busy office, but that only makes it more important to exert control where you can. One of the best things you can do is invest in a good pair of headphones to help you block out the distracting sounds of your office. That way you can blast a focus playlist or play some pleasant white noise—whatever helps you focus better.

Find a rhythm that suits you

Now that you’re buckled in and ready to work, you should just keep going until your eyes hurt and you can’t stand it anymore, right?

Probably not. Most people can’t even go a few hours without needing some sort of break, let alone all day. In fact, most people can’t work on a mentally tasking project for more than 20-40 minutes before needing a break. Additionally, it’s far easier to mentally commit to 30 minutes of uninterrupted work than to 4 hours of the same. Committing to 30 minutes of work followed by a five-minute break will make you less likely to procrastinate getting started. If you’re not sure where to get started, try the Pomodoro technique.

Minimize meetings

You need to hold meetings if you want to run a successful business with more than one employee, but even necessary meetings somehow manage to turn into time-sinks too often. Luckily, there are three simple steps you can take to make meetings more efficient and less frequent: have a goal, come prepared, and end with a plan.

Have a goal

The first step to holding more efficient meetings is to clearly communicate your goals from the outset. Will this be a decision meeting or a discussion meeting? State that upfront so that everyone is working toward the same goal. The more specific you can be, the more productive your meeting will be.

Come prepared

Not only will setting a specific goal help to get everyone on the same page, it will also give the other participants a chance to come prepared with input and ideas. That means that one of the best things you can do as the meeting organizer is to prepare and distribute your specific meeting goal ahead of time. Similarly, if you’ve been invited to a meeting, you can help make that meeting more productive by taking the time to do a little research and thinking about how best to participate.

End with an action plan

The efficiency of your meetings is only as good as the actions those meetings lead to. Rather than going back to your desk to figure out how best to apply the revelations of your latest super-meeting, take a few minutes at the end of each meeting to discuss with the team what comes next—important deadlines, task assignments, follow-up meetings, etc. By taking the time to make specific plans going forward, you will help ensure that the time you just spent in a meeting wasn’t wasted and that everyone is aligned on the takeaways.

Add More Value to Your Clients

Tax season is hectic, and the temptation is strong to use last year’s return as a template. After all, if the client didn’t have any life-changing events last year—if they didn’t start a new business, didn’t have a baby, didn’t get married (or divorced)—having comparable tax outcomes should be expected, right?

Don’t give in to that temptation. Take a minute to really examine your client’s situation and see what you can do to add value. Just because you (or the client’s previous preparer) did things a certain way last year doesn’t mean you should do them the same way this year. The best tax professionals are those who don’t see themselves as just tax preparers. They see themselves as tax consultants and work hard to develop a relationship as a trusted advisor to their clients.

If you want to position yourself as a consultant (instead of just a preparer) and add more value for your client, there are two things you need to do every time you prepare a return. First, double check your client’s return to see if there are any opportunities you may have overlooked. Second, tax season is a great opportunity to start a conversation with your client about the changes that will affect your client next year. This changes a rearview tax interview into a forward facing planning session and encourages your clients to keep you updated as changes occur.

Make Next Tax Season Better

With these tax season survival tips, you can make your next tax season run more smoothly than ever before. 

Want to make tax season even better?

Try out Canopy’s accounting practice management software, which includes lots of client management and firm management features. Sign up for a personalized demo.

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